“How Can I Take Your Money?” – A Vacation in Egypt

I have finally arrived home in Amman! After a week of exploring, touring, and many bizarre experiences, I can check Egypt off of my bucket list. Overall, the trip was incredible. I feel like my perception of life in the Middle East has doubled and my appreciation for Amman has grown exponentially. The rumors of increased sexual harassment in Cairo were completely unfounded. If anything, there was less sexual harassment! I definitely recommend Cairo as your next vacation spot, and if you choose to go, hopefully you won’t be swindled as badly as we were!

Day 1: Giza and the Pyramids

We called a taxi to come to our apartment at 3:30am on Friday morning. The airport is about a 40 minute ride away, so we arrived 2 hours before our 6:00am flight. As it was so early on the holy day, the airport was deserted. We were the only people in line for security and to print our boarding passes. As we got to our gate, we saw numerous other people from CIEE who were connecting through Cairo.

The flight to Cairo was only an hour long. We were served breakfast and were given some in-flight entertainment when the pilot decided to take the scenic route:

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Perhaps this was due to the sandstorm or a special “no-fly” ordinance over a part of the city, but it was certainly strange. This was only the first in the string of lunacies we encountered in Cairo and Giza. We were staying with Caroline’s friend Kate. She had told us that a cab from the airport to her apartment shouldn’t be more than 80-100LE (Egyptian pounds). After we bought our Egyptian visas, exchanged money, and cleared passport control, we were swarmed by cab drivers asking if we needed a ride. Usually it is best to find a cab on the street, but one cab driver agreed to take us to Kate’s neighborhood for 80LE.

He led us out of the airport and into the parking lot. We approached several taxis but always continued walking past them. Finally, he got his keys out of his pocket and began to unlock a rusty station wagon with absolutely no markings of a taxi. We immediately began saying “no, thank you,” and walking away. He simply shrugged and re-locked his car.

Finally, we found an actual taxi that agreed to take us to our destination for 100LE.  We packed our luggage in the trunk and piled into the car. Then, he claimed we had to pay him an additional 10LE as an “exit fee” out of the airport. To make up for this, he insisted we eat his sunflower seeds. He then proceeded to speed through Cairo at 140KMH. My first impression of the city was that it looked ravaged by war. In fact, it had been. The revolution occurred only a few years ago and the scars are still visible throughout the city. Many buildings looked destroyed or unfinished (some intentionally as you don’t have to pay taxes on an unfinished building). There was also dense, ominous smog suffocating the city. We all thought this was simply a result of the pollution, but later learned of the recent sandstorm.

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We arrived at Kate’s apartment around 7am. She lives on the 11th floor and of course the elevator was broken. After huffing up 11 flights of stairs with our luggage, we finally arrived! Around 2pm, we decided to go to Giza, which is 20 minutes away from Cairo, to see the Pyramids. It probably wasn’t the best idea due to the fog, but it was still spectacular to see them!

After buying our 30LE tickets, we were approached by an Egyptian man who said, “Hello, I work for the Pyramids tourism group and if you’d follow me, I will guide you through the site.” It sounded legitimate and we thought it was included in the ticket price since he worked for the pyramids, so we followed. He gave us a lot of basic information, like the names of the pyramids and brief history, but more importantly, he took lots of pictures for us!

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At one point, he led us to a tomb and sent us inside with one of his friends who also took photos of us inside the tomb. Once we left, the friend demanded that we tip him for “taking illegal photos.” We gave him 5LE per person, which is about $1. We continued our tour until we came across another man offering horse tours. Caroline and Allison wanted to do the horse tour, but Andrew and I did not. I absolutely HATE horses and this tour was 40LE or $10. Our guide became aggressive and started insisting that I take the tour because my two friends were and we “had to stick together.” I became equally aggressive and told him I am not going to pay for something I don’t want to do and that I would wait right here as not to get lost. While Andrew and I were waiting, the guide approached us again and told us that the tour was over as soon as our friends returned. He also told us we needed to tip him 100LE per person for his tour. Fifteen minutes and much yelling later, we escaped having only paid him 5LE per person, which was still too much in our opinion.

After Giza, everyone was exhausted and frustrated. Kate took us to lunch at a cute café called Zooba. I ordered Koshari which is one of Egypt’s most famous dishes. It is basically spaghetti, rice, and smaller pasta with marinara sauce on it. It was pretty good.

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We decided to go to Coptic Cairo, which is the old, Christian part of Cairo. The taxi driver dropped us off in front of a rotting fruit market. We wandered through an alley that was apparently dedicated to fixing cars that had been bombed and then ended up in the middle of a block party where 12 year olds kept catcalling us and chasing us on bikes. None of this seemed like Coptic Cairo to us, so we kept walking. In front of a few stores, a man approached us and asked, “Excuse me, do you speak English? I need help writing a letter.” My friend Allison agreed to help and we were all served tea and coffee. The storeowner, Tarek, kept us in his store for 2 hours, talking to us about his newborn daughter, Nadia, and how he knows 16 languages.

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Once we left, we found a Christian cemetery that we wandered into and then were promptly asked to leave. On our way out, we were ushered into a church where a very old lady was singing and two other people were watching. There didn’t seem to be an exit through the church, so we awkwardly turned around and left.

Our confused faces in the graveyard.

Our confused faces in the graveyard.

That night, Kate invited us to a party on a felucca. A felucca is a large, open-air boat with seats on the sides but a large dance floor in the middle. How often do you get to go to a dance party on the Nile river?! I met a lot of awesome people studying in Cairo. Some were Egyptian, some were British, and some were American. One of Kate’s best friends, Chris, was from Fort Thomas, Kentucky! We bonded over our mutual love for Skyline Chili. As the music was directly from Kate’s iPod, we danced to American music instead of the strange European remixes that the clubs in Amman like to play. It was easily the best night of the entire trip.

People dancing on the boat

People dancing on the boat

Day 2: Cairo

This was another day of touring! First, Allison and I got breakfast with one of Kate’s friends, Jake/Tony. He took us to a tiny, hole-in-the-wall café where middle-aged Egyptian men were sitting around, drinking Turkish coffee and smoking shisha. Oddly enough, the TV was blasting One Direction music videos. After we had our coffee, Jake/Tony took us to an authentic Egyptian breakfast stand. I ordered a hardboiled egg INSIDE falafel. It was so cheap and delicious, but definitely unhealthy. The food culture of Cairo reminded me a lot of big cities like NYC. Both cities are almost exactly the same size and have diverse boroughs. After breakfast, we traveled to the largest market in Cairo, Khan al-Khalil. Unfortunately, most of the goods were carbon copies of each other, suggesting that everything was simply “Made in China” junk, rather than unique Egyptian goods.

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Afterwards, we went to Al-Azhar mosque, which is one of the most important mosques in the Middle East. As we were loitering around outside the entrance, trying to figure out how to get inside, a man from behind the front desk approached us and handed us hooded cloaks to wear in order to come inside. He also took our shoes and put them into cubbies. He motioned for us to follow him and he led us around the mosque, showing us the library, Braille room, and prayer room. It was interesting, but we definitely could have seen everything on our own. In true Egyptian fashion, after the tour was over, he insisted that we pay him for his efforts during the 5-minute tour. We were baffled that a religious man would try to swindle tourists by roping them into a tour without asking. We begrudgingly paid.

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One of the only green spaces in Cairo is Al-Azhar Park. Kate and her friends told us we had to visit as it is so spectacularly beautiful. Upon arrival, we learned that we had to pay 7LE to enter. After being swindled by so many people, we decided not to pay the entrance fee and simply sit outside instead. Afterwards, we went to Tahrir Square, which was the epicenter of the revolution. It still bore the remnants of the revolution with tents in the center, an overturned, bombed car in the road, and graffiti of the revolution painted on the buildings. The atmosphere was sobering, but the people were milling about the square as if they were in Central Park.

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That night, we ate dinner at a local place in Kate’s neighborhood that boasted traditional Egyptian fare. Allison, Andrew, and Caroline had Egypt’s national dish, which consisted of rice, chicken, and a thick pesto/tomato stew, which they called “gloop.” I ordered the rice-stuffed pigeon. Surprisingly, it was delicious! There wasn’t very much meat on the bones, but it was seasoned to perfection.

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Day 3-7: Sharm el-Sheikh

It may seem silly to lump so many days into the same category, but our time in Sharm was a huge blur of tanning, eating, indigestion, and old people. We should have known the place was bad news when we arrived at the Hilton at 3pm (check in begins at 2) and our room wasn’t ready for 30 minutes. We had heard stories of all the Brits and Russians who vacation at Sharm, so my expectations were high. However, they failed to mention that these were British and Russian families and retired couples. The only people under 30 were young couples. We were the only college-aged kids on spring break. Because of this, all of the entertainment was geared toward middle-aged adults. We went to karaoke one night, and all of the songs were from the 60s-80s.

As is common with resort food, it made all of us sick. Even when I stuck to soup, salad, and bread, my stomach was upset. I have never been happier to return to my almost-vegan eating habits in Amman. Another strange aspect of the resort was the bipolar staff. It seemed that half of them absolutely hated working in the service industry and would do anything to avoid dealing with customers, while the other half was downright obnoxious. There was an “animation team” whose only job was to interact with the guests. Unfortunately, they treated us as toddlers and tried to corral us into doing preplanned activities like water aerobics. One animation team member named Ecko learned that we were American and proceeded to scream “AMERICANOOOOO!!!” each time he saw us, which was several times per day. The bar staff were also incredibly awkward. One bartender took a liking to us and would always make us fancy drinks that weren’t included in our all-inclusive package. His manager caught him and gave him a verbally abusive warning in the middle of the pool bar! So bizarre….

An average day for us was to wake up at 9:30am, go to the breakfast buffet, lay out next to the pool until lunchtime, eat a lunch snack, lay out until 4pm, return to the room to shower and change, go to dinner, go to the bar, attempt to watch the pathetic entertainment, return to the room to hang out until bedtime. We decided that we should have spent longer in Cairo and only 3 days in Sharm.

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The real adventure came when we realized we had to figure out the ferry and bus schedules to get from Sharm to Amman. We asked the front desk and they merely shrugged and pointed us toward one of the tour companies. After two days of going to the tour office only for it to be empty, we made an appointment. The tour company told us we would have to book a tour to Petra for 2000LE in order to get to Jordan through them. Ha! We looked online and all of the ferry phone numbers weren’t functional and the times on the websites were from 2003. We realized that the bus/ferry plan wasn’t feasible so we bought plane tickets directly from Sharm to Amman. Even though this was more expensive, it was definitely faster and safer. It was even on Royal Jordanian, the best airline.

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In total, the trip was great. Even though our resort was lacking, it definitely provided a lot to laugh over. My friends and I still say “Salute, Nadia!” in honor of the shopkeeper’s daughter each time we “cheers”. Going to Egypt was definitely a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was incredible to see the heart and soul of the Middle East. Many aspects of Cairo even related to what I am currently learning about in my classes. In Arabic, I could distinguish between the Egyptian and Levantine dialects and, by seeing the scars of the revolution first-hand, it has helped me to understand why the people of Jordan are so desperate to keep the king in power for stability, even though they don’t approve of him. I am excited to continue traveling, learning, and accumulating stamps in my passport! Next up – Beirut or Dubai for a weekend in mid-April!

If you want to see more pictures from my trip, click here for a link to Facebook. You don’t have to be my friend to see!

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